Glory to Jesus Christ! We are getting closer and closer to Pascha in our Lenten Journey. This week we are blessed with this Sunday commemorating St. John of the Ladder. This is a wonderful image of a long journey to Christ, and in many ways this image will become even more glorious on this Wednesday evening at our parish, where we will have the opportunity to pray the Canon of our Holy Father among the Saints Andrew of Crete. At 7 p.m. we will begin this beautiful prayer service that is a fitting testimony to the reality that Byzantine Catholics are Bible Christians. Our dedication to more Lenten services will be put to the test, but as we will see perhaps even more important will be the words of the service and their test to who we are as those who believe in the Bible as the Word of God.
The Canon of Saint Andrew is based on the service of Matins. In Matins, there are traditionally 9 odes. They were originally the 9 most beautiful scriptural canticles; that is, the songs that aren’t in the book of Psalms. Over time these canons grew to be filled with beautiful poetry that replaced those canticles, and one excellent example of this is what St. Andrew who originated this type of poetry in Matins (including the Canon of the Nativity of Christ), and also composed this service that we will sing this Wednesday night. Who was St. Andrew? He was born in the 600s and fell asleep in the Lord in the 700s. He was born in Damascus to a pious family, became a monk of the monastery of St. Sabbas and eventually was the Archbishop of Crete. His poetry was so inspiring that we use this service in the odes which include 250 troparia telling the story of salvation history. Traditionally each troparion is responded to with “Have mercy on me O God, have mercy on me” or “Holy Father Andrew, pray to God for us”, or a “Glory” at the end of each ode. Each of these responses would be followed by a prostration. 250 prostrations is quite the workout! Of course if we can’t do all of them physically our hearts may join in the asceticism, and I hope that that includes our hearts’ cry to follow Christ and know more of what we are praying.
In these 250 troparia, we dig deep into the word of God. St. Andrew calls us to consider our own sins and and how we resemble so many from the Scriptures. We consider all of our shortcomings first by comparing ourselves to the fall of Adam and Eve. We go through the falls and sins of humanity by continuing through the years and consider the following “short list” of Biblical characters in addition to Adam and Eve: Cain, Lamech, Seth, Enosh, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth, Lot, Abraham, Ishmael, Hagar, Jacob, Melchizedek, Leah, Rachel, Esau, Job, Ruben, Joseph, Moses, Pharaoh, the midwives, Aaron, Jannes, Jambres, Dathan, Abiram, Ephraim, Joshua, Amalek, the Gibeonites, Manoah, Samson, Barak, Jephthah, Deborah, Jael, Gideon, Eli, the Levite from Judges, Hannah, Samuel, David, Saul, Uzziah, Absalom, Ahithophel, Solomon, Rehoboam, Ahab, Elijah, Ahaziah, Jezebel, the widow of Zarephath, Manasseh, Hezekiah, Elisha, the Shunnamite woman, Jeremiah, Jonah, and Daniel, in addition to the people who encountered our Lord in the New Testament. Let’s consider just one example from this long list above: “When a just person such as Job, who is totally beyond reproach, cannot hold off the attacks of the Evil One, what shall you do, O my soul, when misfortune falls upon you?” In meditating upon the Old Testament we are called here to ask if we can handle misfortune as well as one of our predecessors, in this case Job. He could not hold off the attacks of the evil one, so what will we do when misfortune befalls us? Job’s story is likely familiar to us and as such we can immediately go to the images put forth here by St. Andrew of Crete and realize that we need to deal with suffering better so often. But what of the whole list above? Did your ears hear any name and wonder who a given saint may be? If so, our tradition is calling you this year to be more of a Bible Christian, because if you’re a Byzantine Christian this is part of your tradition, to be a Bible Christian.
Now it should be clear that this is a very large list of saints. It can become overwhelming if very few (or even none) of these saints is familiar to us. One thought on this would be, forget it, it’s impossible. This service isn’t for me. I’m here today to say, no. Please don’t worry if you can’t understand all of the beautiful biblical references. Our faith is a very deep treasure, and the key to appreciating it is to simply know that if we are growing in our knowledge of the good, we are going in the right direction. I want to encourage all of you, and myself, to look at this service book (it’s online if you google Metropolitan Cantor Institute) and ask how you and I can become more familiar this year with just one of the characters in this text. In fact, let’s do this together right now. I’ll pick Ahithophel, because I’m sure he’s everyone’s favorite Old Testament character. He isn’t? Let’s learn more. Before we learn about Ahithophel in the Bible, let’s hear about him in the Canon. St. Andrew says this about Ahithophel in ode: “You have enslaved your dignity and your freedom to your body; and you have found in the Enemy another Ahithophel, for you have followed his counsels. But Christ has destroyed them in order to save you.” Ahithophel is a person we are told that gives us counsel to lose our dignity and to make our body our master. Christ is said to be the one who has destroyed the enemy and this slavery of Ahithophel. Who is this one who has counsels that we follow when we sin?
Now, in the Bible Ahithophel comes to us in 2 Samuel 15. We hear there that one of David’s sons, Absalom, wanted to usurp the throne of his father David. How did he do this? In part, he looked to the closest friends of King David. In chapter 15 we hear: “While Absalom was offering the sacrifices, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, from his city Giloh. The conspiracy grew in strength, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.“
But things change after David loses his counselor, he also loses his throne. In his flight we hear, “David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot; and all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went. David was told that Ahithophel was among the conspirators with Absalom. And David said, ‘O Lord, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.’”
David is in exile. Tears are shed in this exile, and repentance is sought because his counselor Ahithophel has betrayed him. Eventually, this betrayal of Ahithophel to join Absalom leads to him to give Absalom counsel instead of David. In the next chapter we hear: “Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the oracle of God; so all the counsel of Ahithophel was esteemed, both by David and by Absalom.” This is what David lost in the betrayal of Ahithophel. In many ways, he lost the guidance of God in losing this one who was considered to be an oracle of God. In the next chapter, there is a discussion-should the people of Absalom continue to follow Ahithophel who at this point is recommending a pursuit of David to kill him? Absalom sides with another advisor, and as such we read this in verse 23 of chapter 17: “When Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his donkey and went off home to his own city. He set his house in order, and hanged himself; he died and was buried in the tomb of his father.“ What a tragic ending. A close advisor of David betrays him, he is eventually out of favor himself, and he hangs himself in desperation. The Psalms attest to this tragedy. Scholars say that there are 2 Psalms that speak to this loss. First, Psalm 40:9 states: “Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.“ In Psalm 54:12-14 we hear David speak of a betrayal that he faced: “If an enemy were insulting me,I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers.” If you have ever heard this Psalm of sharing bread and being betrayed and thought of the Last Supper you are not alone. Ahithophel is the Biblical basis for that Psalm that points us to Christ. The verses from Psalm 54 are sung liturgically in the 6th hour, which is traditionally sung at noon when Christ was crucified. The son of David is a lot like King David when we think of both David and Ahithophel. The Betrayal of Christ therefore is made clearer by our better understanding of Ahithophel, who shares bread with David and ends his betrayal by hanging himself just as did Judas. Let’s re-read the Canon of St. Andrew on Ahithophel now with all of this background in our minds and hearts: “You have enslaved your dignity and your freedom to your body; and you have found in the Enemy another Ahithophel, for you have followed his counsels. But Christ has destroyed them in order to save you.” We know the betrayal of Ahithophel more clearly which helps us understand how our dignity and freedom are enslaved to the enemy, and we can then understand how foolish it is to follow our passions. We are like those who did not follow King David but went into rebellion like Ahithophel (and Judas). This is a rebellion that leads not to pleasure or life but to pain and death. I hope that by digging into the Scriptures you are thus encouraged to dig more into our Church’s liturgical life by attending services such as what we have this Wednesday evening. It is truly rich and blessed, and if we would only give it more time we would see the beauty and majesty of our salvation through Christ all the more clearly as we journey to celebrate his holy resurrection. Glory to Jesus Christ!